Fire Regime and Stability of the West African Tropical Forest

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Francis K. Dwomoh and Michael C Wimberly, South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD, United States
Ecological discussions concerning alternative stable states theory suggest that tropical forest ecosystems could shift to qualitatively different alternative states upon catastrophic disturbances which exceed forest resilience. In this regard, it is expected that changes in the fire regime facilitated by climate and land use alterations could lead to rapid forest cover loss, creating conditions likely to push tropical forests to tipping points, beyond which forest resilience is lost. However, there is a dearth of empirical examples of fire-driven alternative stable states involving tropical forests. Key among the constraints for this scarcity are the requirements for large scale disturbances and long-term data, both of which are scarce. However, in the West African tropical forest (referred to as the Upper Guinean forest, UGF) a number of protected areas were impacted by large fire events during the 1980s El Niño–driven droughts, providing an opportunity for testing hypotheses concerning alternative stable states in tropical forest ecosystems. This paper aims to demonstrate fire-driven alternative stable states in the deciduous forest zone of the UGF by analyzing fire activity and forest recovery in fire-impacted forest reserves. We analyzed historical Landsat and MODIS imagery to map and quantify vegetation cover change, fire frequency and fire severity patterns. Our analyses suggest that the historic fires in the 1980s were catastrophic enough to remove forest canopy, thereby triggering a landscape-scale alternative stable states. Forest cover declined substantially becoming replaced by a novel ecosystem with low tree density. Our results also indicate the establishment of a positive fire-vegetation feedback effect, such that the new vegetation which displaced severely burned forests is more pyrogenic and maintained through frequent burns. This study expands our knowledge on the vulnerability of tropical forest ecosystems to state transitions in response to fire regime changes.